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Birthday Cake

The Birthday Cake

(c) Linda Hutchison June 2017

The birthday cake sat in pride of place in the centre of the table. It was an incredible creation designed especially for my brother’s 7th birthday. A bright blue and red car sat on a black tarmac edged with vivid green grass. A signpost in one corner sported my brother’s name. Seven candles stood like an avenue of lampposts alongside the edible road. The platform for this automotive scene was a heavily disguised vanilla sponge, my brother’s favourite, sandwiched with thick vanilla cream and homemade strawberry jam. We knew because we’d been there for every tortuous step of its creation. Mum was understandably proud of it, my brother was ecstatic, and the rest of us were just plain relieved.
Mum sat back in her chair with her cup of tea, drinking a deep draught like a free diver sucks in air when they surface. She hadn’t quite relaxed yet, but we could tell that she was gradually recovering as she looked around and acknowledged that we had got to this point in the day without further disaster. All that was left was to light the candles and sing Happy Birthday to my brother before we plunged forks into the car and demolished it. We Instagramed the cake for memory’s sake and tagged Mum for good measure. She’d have to put up with the #sugarfree #skinnymummies comments later.
Of course, by now you’re wondering what was so hard about making the cake, apart from the baking, sculpturing and icing, and the challenge of pleasing a 7 year old boy. It was probably something to do with a chain of events that made it look like Murphy had had a hand in its creation. First Mum spent three hours looking for the special recipe that her grandmother had handed down. She was convinced it was handwritten down the side of the page of a recipe book, so she scanned page after page of recipe book until her neck ached and she’d emptied the bookshelf. She finally found a recipe written as expected, down the side of a page, but it was for lamb casserole, not vanilla sponge. It finally dawned on her that she had scanned her grandmother’s recipe into the computer and could access it on her iPad. Her iPad was running low on power, only to finally shut down just before she’d gathered all the ingredients.
“No problem,” she’d said confidently. “I remember it by heart. But stick that thing on the charger, will you.”
With the butter and sugar creamed, and the oven heating up, Mum dug into the deep drawer of cake tins, searching for the old square tin she used for fruit cakes. It was nowhere to be found. (Dad later confessed to using it in the garage to clean the spark plugs for the mower.)  She dashed down the shops to buy another one, and grabbed a packet of candles for the top. She carefully lined the cake tins with paper, wondering why the paper stuck so well in place. (Later she would ask me to Google the effects of eating waxed paper.)
After beating in the eggs, adding vanilla, then the flour, she thought the cake mixture seemed a bit heavy. She checked her grandmother’s recipe on the now charged iPad, and noticed that she was supposed to add arrowroot. She looked into the pantry, pushing containers aside as she searched, and realised that the container with self-raising flour was still completely full. Logically, it should be a cup or two short. Her heart sank, much as she expected the cake would. Going back to the pantry, she realised that she’d used potato flour instead.
“Great,” she said wryly, waving the wooden spoon at us. “My first vanilla gnocchi sandwich. Back to the drawing board. And the shops.” The last of her eggs were now firmly set in the bowl before her.
After a fortifying brew of English Breakfast, Mum started again, this time carefully following the recipe. The arrowroot was added, the sponge mixture light and fluffy, and the cake tins placed on the shelf in the oven. She set the timer and sat down with another cup of tea to check car designs on the internet. If it hadn’t been for the delivery guy ringing the doorbell, she may never have made it out of Farmville. She burst out of her seat to answer the door, then raced into the kitchen only to find the timer ringing its little heart out. She had no idea how long it had been ringing, but the cakes were starting to resemble someone who had gone a few shades too far in the tanning booth. She whipped them out of the oven and set them on the table to cool, hoping the vague smell of charcoal would dissipate if she left the back door open. The back door, of course, let in a lovely cooling breeze. It also let in the local magpies, which we found flapping around the table, but Mum said not to worry, she could fill the holes with icing. She was starting to develop a strange glint in her eyes.
When the cakes were finally cool, she started cutting out shapes to form the car. We hung around eating the offcuts until my brother accidentally ate the bonnet and we were banished into the next room. We also decided to buy Mum a new labelling machine for her next birthday after her first batch of icing turned out to be a mixture of cornflour and water. And we were just thankful that she was wearing old tracksuit pants when the lid of the blue dye bottle gave way and sprayed blue across her face, pants and the kitchen cupboards. We didn’t dare suggest that it was an improvement.
Finally we’d reached that point where the family was gathered around the table, the birthday cake was sitting aloft like the crown jewels, and it was time to celebrate and light the candles. Mum asked Dad to take care of it, and he lent over the table with the long gas lighter. My brother sat up expectantly. The candles were burning brightly, and we’d launched into the familiar tune of Happy Birthday when Murphy executed his master stroke. Bang! Bang, bang, bang! Seven little explosions rent the air, followed by a shower of vanilla sponge cake, cream, jam, and painfully bright icing. A deeply blackened wheel rolled across the floor and came to rest like a hand grenade poised to detonate on the cream loungeroom carpet.
“Exploding candles” growled Dad. We all sat perfectly still, staring at Mum, wondering what the next explosion would be. With her face half blue, she resembled an ancient Scottish warrior, and my brother, distressed as he was about his cake, knew better than to even murmur. She stared back at us, covered in cake, then slowly twisted to look at Dad. None of us moved, not even the dog. She stood up and turned around, and we could see her shoulders shaking. A strange, strangled gurgle escaped her lips, and she sank down onto the floor. She was shaking more violently now, her right hand pushing crumbs across the tiles. She turned back to look at us with a maniacal sort of grin, then collapsed flat on her back laughing, as she made a sort of snow angel on the floor in a sea of vanilla sponge. We all relaxed, and our dog decided that he had just been given permission to clean up. Mum just reached across and patted him as he scoffed the grassy verge and licked cream off the wall.
“Well, happy birthday son”, she finally offered, wiping the tears of glee from her eyes. She stood up, brushed the crumbs from her clothes and strode purposefully into the kitchen. We saw her reach up to the highest shelf in the pantry (which we noted for later midnight raids), then pull out a familiar packet. She stripped off the wrapping and handed it around.
“Tim Tam slam, anyone?”
From now on, our birthday cakes would be candle-free and dunkable, and very, very chocolatey.

The Birthday Cake: Work
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